My Dear Aunt Sally Meets RPN

Training is usually the poorest stepchild of any corporate activity. However, at a certain point in the development of 1970’s consumer electronics, the public had yet to really comprehend the brilliance of what the techies had produced. The techies themselves, all young, and hardworking and excitable did not help much: many crashed computer programs displayed the sign: Tough Luck Turkey! , the screen message from computer geeks who made the program. This kind of error message appeared so that ordinary users — who could not understand how to use their new portable computers – might at least understand that they were considered a lower order of being. Marketing-through-derisiveness probably slowed down the computer revolution by ten years. This and other nerdish posturing, throughout all computers, unfortunately resulted in the The Digital Divide, an us-versus-them elitism that stalls everyone’s progress even to this day.

From a background in making smaller electronics for trucks going across the Southwestern plains looking for oil, Texas Instruments had become a world leader in solid-state electronics. They had produced a series of transistor-based products a competing with Silicon Valley companies such as Fairchild to instill the semiconductor phenomenon in cars and planes and the new personal computers. T.I. also created the first transistor radios, but Japanese companies and marketers left them out of the picture for 10 years. Later the worm turned slightly when T.I. patent representatives started making the rounds of companies like Sony and Pioneer in Japan, and laid a hefty patent license bill on them. But the Transistor Radio had already been lost to them: the horde of 1950’s teenagers were already listening to Elvis and Bill Haley on their picnic blankets. (You could never pry these portable radios from their cold dead ears.) Texas Instruments never received public credit for its transistor radio, and it hurt, hurt clear until they had their next big chance at a consumer market.

When Texas Instruments introduced the first four-function calculator, they had no idea how to approach a consumer market. They knew it could be hot, but their salespeople were from technical sales and had no feel for the general consumer nor the retailers who sold the calculators to them. The salespeople were near violating federal Sherman Act and Clayton Act guidelines, and the Texas Instruments lawyers had management worried with the possible liabilities. The retail market was a vicious jungle to the technical types at T.I., who considered themselves first as electrical engineers and scientists rather than consumer salespeople. Yet, this small Texas company was determined not to let this next opportunity slip away.

I was in no way academically qualified even to enter into this discussion. I was a news writer turned English major and then Communications MA, two majors of even less repute to electrical engineers than newswriting. However, I had been a communication/electronics officer in the military and was not immediately terrified of these intricate new worlds (– though I should have been). Meanwhile, I had evolved from a tech writer to a training program manager. Various persons had seen my video dramatizations and easy-to-understand technical descriptions, and asked me to be on the team training these crucial salespeople.

The four-function calculators caught on quickly, and the competition was stiff and cutthroat, but T.I.’s ability to mass produce and keep prices low kept it in the race at the lower end. I was asked to do legal tapes where salesmen found themselves in compromising (sales) situations, and were shown the severe implications of their actions and then given better practices to use instead. Anyone familiar with consumer marketing knows that salesmen can offer a mix of product, and also cooperative (half funding) local advertising and other tactics. Some were legal, some were borderline unfair practices. It was a wild and woolly world because no one had ever sold highly technical products to the mass public over the counter.

Even though T.I. still sold its semiconductors (transistor) products to the defense department and all manner of electronics businesses, the handheld calculator for the common man gave them not only a new public identity, but delivery problems that went clear back through the manufacturing structure. Mechanical engineers became important in this electronics company because you couldn’t allow the keys on the calculator to stick – not a small problem with the amount of coffee and diet Coke at many desks. At the beginning of the process, however, were the Wizards, the chemical engineers. Line workers who assembled T.I. printed circuit boards and put them into T.I. calculators depended upon the supply of “chips.” These “chips” came from wafers thinly sliced with laser saws across wide “rods” of gallium arsenide and other silicon mixtures. The mixtures of the chemical Wizards, though hardly exact at the first, produced the necessary conductive impurities that had allowed old vacuum tubes to be replaced the tiny transistor components. Some said that what took a roomful of the first computers was now in the palm of our hands.

So not only the mechanical engineer (, and not only the playwright,) but the chemical engineer was critical to making the new calculators on schedule. Not all chips worked. They had to be tested before they went into calculators, and the unpredictable yields of earlier days would not suffice. The chemical engineers stirred up the material that would go into the rods, and then into the tiny chips. Even then, no one knew exactly how it would turn out. In that manufacturing environment, it was still hit-and-miss.

Many days, the coffee areas were filled and the line workers were sitting outside their work areas, many smoking, some even knitting. At the time almost all of these line workers were women, as it was believed that women on the whole had finer attention to detail and smaller hands to place these transistors into the circuit boards and calculators. Because of T.I.s innovative profit sharing plan, many of these common line workers retired with handsome pensions for a career of repeated actions and tiny drudgeries. But right then, the company had essentially shut down. I asked a co-worker why that was.

“The Wizards had a bad batch.”

So these chemical engineers in an electronics company had the major responsibility in what was a somewhat random process. Only later did they learn to optimize the production of chips, but the ugly secret of those days was that the process was a little mystical and far from a perfect manufacturing situation.

When I was brought into the actual sales messaging, the engineers had created T.I.s first scientific calculator, the SR-50. What they really wanted was to educate business professionals to use complex business formulas, and with the SR-52 their first programmable calculators, with a “chewing gum stick” to hold the simple program. Because they really wanted to sell to this business community, they decided to build their scientific calculators around an Algebraic Entry. Without trying to make readers into mathematicians, math teachers could tell you that the way you construct a complex problem can affect its accuracy.

Hewlett-Packard already had a handheld calculator for scientists and engineers, and they all loved the fact that these calculators were based on RPN, or Reverse Polish Notation. RPN dictated that every subset of caculations within a larger calculation be “nested” within successive parentheses. Texas Instruments, because it was aiming at the larger consumer and business markets, decided to build their scientific calculator around Algebraic Entry, which meant you entered the elements of the problem as you would read them. That meant one kind of calculation was automatically prioritized instead of being placed in a succession of nested parentheses. Teachers used to say that decided the priority of calculations should follow the mnemonic My Dear Aunt Sally – Multiplication then Division then Addition and finally Subtraction. That is as far as I will go. If you understand it all, good. If you understand that there were major ideological considerations here – and that it was a critical business decision — well, that’s enough for here.

Because my training videos largely made sense to the common business user, I also became involved in competitive advertising strategies. Print materials would line up the HP calculators facets with the comparable Texas Instruments facets. When the HP advertisers put in their entry system, it was always RPN. I wondered why. Well of course, if you knew very little about mathematical theory, would you buy a calculator based on “Reverse Polish Notation”? Oh my God! The cruel ethic joke everyone knew was that Polish clocks were right twice a day. And then, calling it Reverse Polish. To me this looked like an immense marketing gift from Hewlett-Packard. I lobbied, and won, the ability to spell out RPN to Reverse Polish Notation on every comparison sheet in magazines and handout literature. The early T.I. Scientific calculators were never the hit product that the four-function calculators were, but we kept trying. 20 years later, from a distance, I saw the TI Business calculators — programmable and based on Algebraic Entry — become the most popular briefcase calculators for business people. It was a long haul.

The first step in that long haul was for salespersons in department stores to demonstrate the T.I. Calculators to the shopping public. At first, the salespeople they  used were selling programmable scientific calculators just like other business products, like desk lamps and planning calendars.  However, these ordinary salepersons were so afraid of trying to show the T.I. scientific calculators that they usually hid them. When our people went out to stores as mystery shoppers, the salespeople could not find the T.I. Scientific calculators and blamed their misplacement on earlier work shifts. In my sales training roles, I made tapes, but also small programs, so that salespersons could show how to easily do amortized loans and other common business tortures. When they began to look good with these examples to the customer, they began to hide the T.I. scientific calculators just a little less.

Along the way I did the first simple – and I mean simple – book on “How to Program.” With a good cartoonist, I showed the program as a conveyor belt with buckets moving along, and the variables were being dumped into the buckets by funnels above the belt, with users pouring various variables into the buckets and sometimes stopping the conveyor belt to rearranged buckets. Frankly, every other explanation since that has appeared confusing to me. But what do I know? Also, I had the idea for a book with each key of the scientific calculator explained simply on one page. I was never even listed on the credits, but the idea for T.I.s classic The Great International Math on Keys was mine. I had fought for it until the logic was clear, and as a reward it was (, as so often happened,) given to another more-qualified group to develop.

In the old West, a motley assortment of gunfighters worked for cattlemen to run off sheep men and settle water disputes with their guns, with few considerations of logical right and wrong, and they all accepted that they “Rode for the Brand.” I guess that was I was doing, riding for the T.I. brand. Although when you are riding for a brand you are largely anonymous to the outside, with technology companies you often enter new and fantastic problems in areas critical to the success of humankind. I learned a lot “riding for the brand,” and I hope I helped Texas Instruments find their way into providing breakthrough products to the general market.

That was certainly true when T.I. next came out with their first digital watches, Japanese watch companies like Seiko and Casio and Hamilton (which made the Pulsar) were making electronic watches, and a Texas Instruments watch seemed a very odd fit. The consumer public in unison scratched its many heads and said: What is Texas Instruments Doing in the Watch Business? From my ignominious perch in sales training, I provided the answer to that question, much disputed but finally triumphant. In my first training tape for salesmen, I showed a live scanning electron microscope with date flowing through its tracks and gates and I put forth the slogan “Texas Instruments has been in the business of time for a long time”. Well, the T.I. scientists at first came unglued in their resistance to this layman’s near-lying puffery, but eventually I won the argument. My slogan eventually became the core of a Clio-winning television commercial. My Clio, I always say. That will be another saga to relate before I forget: 1975 and T.I. Digital watches.

Copyright 2018 David Hon – All rights reserved

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